One of the great things about Chefs to Dine For dinners is that each event is so different. I’ve attended a number of these feasts and all have been relaxed evenings—until this one. The September 2012 occasion was an action-packed, delicious feast for the eyes and ears as well the nose and palate, but the clock was a dictator in this story. With much to take in, our dinner at Redeye Grill had to start early—and still it recessed quickly to accommodate a Broadway show about the life of Charlie Chaplin, aptly titled “Chaplin.” Thereafter it reconvened, with dinner guests rubbing elbows with members of the cast and Mindy Rich, the play’s producer from Rich Entertainment Group, over fine desserts and mixed drinks prepared by renowned mixologist Brian Van Flandern. Brian is author of the book “Vintage Cocktails,” and he created a drink just for this occasion: the “Going to the Chaplin” cocktail. From dinner, to show, to after-party, the evening advanced like a tightly choreographed production—a three-act play:
(Redeye Grill, Midtown Manhattan in the Theatre District)
Guests gather, old friends reunite and new acquaintances are struck up over glasses of wine instantly offered and quickly accepted.
Dinner is served from a menu composed by Chef Brando de Oliveira—heirloom chicory and endive salad with goat cheese, choice of prime fillet mignon or butter-braised monkfish osso bucco, Jewish mashed potatoes and steamed spinach.
[Aside] The filet mignon wins Best in Class and the potatoes are To Die For.
Hostess Lynne Ryan reminds her guests that time and the rising curtain wait for no one. This compels diners to abbreviate the savoring of fine food and great conversation, and it obliges professional photographer Rodney Bedsole to curtail his photo-taking of guests wanting to preserve the memories.
(Transition from Redeye Grill to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in the heart of Broadway, where theatergoers are gathering to see the life story of comedian and cinema legend Charlie Chaplin)
The air has a hint of early fall to it, making for an enjoyable walk (for the daring) between the Redeye Grill on Seventh Avenue at 56th Street and the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on 47th Street. Finding their reserved orchestra seats, guests reassemble, exchange quick hellos, and settle in with only minutes to spare before the lights dim. Guests are wondering where their judgments will land, given the critics’ mixed reviews:
• Variety: “The most treacherous part of producing a biomusical about an iconic performer is finding an actor who can convincingly handle the role. The producers of “Chaplin” – this fall’s first Broadway offering – have passed that difficult test, with relative newcomer Rob McClure proving a small wonder as the Little Tramp.”
• The Chicago Tribune: “Despite an enigmatic, career-making performance from Rob McClure in the title role, an earnest turn from Wayne Alan Wilcox as his tag-along brother Sydney, and an engaging performance from Erin Mackey as Chaplin’s late-in-life love Oona, ‘Chaplin’ is a musical where the material is just not up to the complexity of its enigmatic subject.”
The musical reaches its single intermission without imparting that feeling of “will this never end?” Indeed, many are surprised: “So soon?” That’s always a good sign.
The show concludes to a standing ovation. Chefs to Dine For guests scurry out and turn back toward uptown and the waiting restaurant. Some are hungry again—and thirsty.
(Back at Redeye Grill, within its glass-enclosed mezzanine retreat)
Guests return to find a regiment of restaurant servers plying a wide array of hors d’oeuvre, a table displaying a mountain of tempting desserts, and a cash bar staffed, stocked, and ready for preparation of mixed drinks for the parched.
In couples and in bunches, actors and cast members begin to appear. Hostess Lynne Ryan and producer Mindy Rich are standing at the bar, near the entrance at the top of the stairs. They are welcoming guests back and greeting cast members as they arrive. Guests are soon posing questions about acting or regarding the play itself. Special guest Bill McCuddy, an entertainment reporter who is a former host of TV’s Fox & Friends and a past writer for Saturday Night Live, seems to be a favorite that guests want to be photographed with—along with the cast of Chaplin, of course. Playbills are being autographed and this writer is not ashamed to be groveling for the signature of Wayne Alan Wilcox, who played the role of Charlie Chaplin’s brother Sydney. Unfortunately, the amazing Rob McClure—Mr. Chaplin himself (well, the Charlie Chaplin of this play)—was unable to attend.
[Aside] Mr. Wilcox and I both hail from the state of Tennessee, and I managed to extract the promise that he’d take my calls and grant an interview once he’s a world-famous actor. His credits include performances in The Normal Heart, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Suddenly Last Summer, The Light in the Piazza, and The Full Monty. His TV/Film appearances include Gilmore Girls and Law and Order.
The hour is late and guests begin to depart, but they leave behind their reviews of the play. The consensus is overwhelmingly positive: “High energy,” “moving performance” and “well-structured with great flashbacks” are some of the phrases hanging in the air. “Of course,” someone says, “as happens in real life, that youth [Zachary Unger playing the role of Chaplin as a young child] stole many of the scenes.” It was Unger’s Broadway debut, but he has Off Broadway and film experience, as well as TV appearances that include Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street. Alas, this after-party was being held much too late for young master Zachary Unger’s attendance. Still, guests left the restaurant feeling delightfully entertained and well fed—thanks to Redeye Grill’s Chef Brando de Oliveira, to the attending cast and crew of Chaplin, and to the extraordinary talents of the event’s organizer—Lynne Ryan of Chefs to Dine For.
Here is my review of the Broadway production of “Chaplin”:
• Of the real-life Charlie Chaplin, with his flexing cane and distinctive gait, it could be said that he lived a brave and creative interpretation of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous words on diplomacy: “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” Starting with nothing, Chaplin applied his negotiating skills to the world, first for survival and then for mounting success—and the whole world still lauds his achievement.
Likewise, this production should be applauded for taking on the monumental task of portraying the life of the giant “Little Tramp” in such a fearless fashion. The play opens with Rob McClure—Chaplin—walking a tightrope high above the stage. He doesn’t fall down on the stage and he doesn’t fall down in his performance. The supporting actors are there for him and we, as an audience, are there for the whole cast. Long live the memories of, and praises for, Chaplin—the man and the show.